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Opinion

Falling out of love with Newcastle United made all the worse when remembering our special one

2 weeks ago
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A belated Happy Valentine’s Day everyone.

I think it’s fair to say that it’s been a long time since the majority of Newcastle United fans were in love with their football club.

The relationship between fan and club has never been further apart and I’m not just talking about the COVID situation with fans being locked out from games.

As it is now likely going to be next season before fans can get into stadiums to watch games, hand on heart, how many people could see themselves going back to St James Park with Mike Ashley still as owner and Steve Bruce remaining in the dugout?

Christmas 2019 gave us an insight into how many people had been turned off by the partnership of Mike Ashley and Head Coach Steve Bruce. With 10,000 half season tickets having to be given away to get “fans” through the door and in turn prop up the owner’s tat empire, due to the continued ramshackle running of the club and the poor product currently on display on the pitch. It never used to be this way.

Yesterday was Kevin Keegan’s 70th birthday and it’s a fair bet to say that if you asked Newcastle United fans where their fondest memories emanate from, over the course of their lives, The Entertainers era under Kevin’s management would be top of the list for the overwhelming majority Few go back as far as 1969 and the moon landings when Newcastle last won a trophy and having not been born then myself, if you said that was your most treasured time, I’ll give you a pass.

Kevin Keegan came to Newcastle in the twilight of his playing career and the fans loved it. Such a highly regarded player coming to a struggling club was always going to lift spirits among Newcastle players and fans alike. It’s no surprise that he lit the club up once again in 1992 when arriving as manager.

Kevin built a side that was not only getting results but was remarkably entertaining to watch. The main reason for this was he had control over who his players were and boy could he spot one, once steadying the ship he achieved promotion, after that he targeted Alex Ferguson and Manchester United’s Premiership crown. Heady stuff but it wasn’t said in jest, it was a real target for Keegan and fans could have been forgiven for not believing it could actually happen bearing in mind how close we came to going out of existence just a couple of years earlier.

Fast forward to 2021 and the height of ambition at the club is staying in the league year after year, something which was openly admitted by Steve Bruce just a few weeks ago. Incredible and people say Newcastle fans have unrealistic expectations? We are currently 17th in the league and scraping our way through the season towards survival if we’re lucky. Nothing to love about that.

I remember the first time Kevin Keegan came back as an opposition manager. It was 2002 and Newcastle United were riding high in the Premier League once again. The team were playing a swashbuckling brand of football not seen since Keegan himself had been around the place. In those days it was Bobby Robson in the dugout and Laurent Robert, Nobby Solano, Craig Bellamy and Alan Shearer once again entertaining the masses. I had food poisoning on the day of the game but there was no way I was missing it, dodgy tuna sandwiches or no dodgy tuna sandwiches.

Nobby got the winning goal but the standout moment for me was just before kick off when the media scrum surrounded the away dugout and Kevin Keegan appeared. Cue an epileptic’s worst nightmare as flash after flash went off capturing the moment for the newspapers the next day, all the while Bobby Robson stood a few feet away unperturbed and fully accepting that this wasn’t his moment, understanding the magnitude of the situation. Respect for the occasion I think it’s called. Respect for the man garnering all the attention if nothing else.

So imagine the surprise when on a cold January night in 2008, I received numerous cryptic texts along the lines of “I think you need to switch on Sky Sports News” and “You’ll never guess what’s happened?”. The euphoria was back, the respect and love for the man in charge was in evidence.

What had happened was the return of Keegan for his (ill fated) second spell as manager. Instantly the drudgery of the Sam Allardyce experiment had been swept away. It doesn’t matter that it didn’t work out, it DOES matter that the owner was embarrassed in a courtroom setting and branded a liar with Keegan vindicated in his decision to walk, having little or no control over which players he was buying or selling. Many times over the intervening years this scenario has reared it’s ugly head and many times we’ve all come to the conclusion that Ashley doesn’t love the club or its fans. The feeling is more than mutual.

I had a different feeling in March 2016 when some wind up merchant told me that Rafa Benitez had been spotted outside St James Park. Yeah, yeah. We’ve all heard taxi drivers spinning a yarn to get football fans all het up. Steve McClaren had just been belatedly sacked and I genuinely hadn’t a clue which patsy would be brought through the door next, so when I again put the news on, like in 2008 I was sceptical with regards to what I was going to witness. When I was greeted with the sight of this esteemed, highly respected coach waltzing into St James’, my jaw hit the floor. Sadly, even that would end in tears.

Kevin, Rafa and Bobby are quite a trio. One achieved much as a player, two made their names as managers, but what made these winners of the game want to come to Newcastle United. Bobby and Kevin knew about the club from their upbringings, Rafa got on with the job in hand and learnt what the fans were about in a short space of time and was persuaded to stay by his family and the love from the fans. Once the fans round these parts get an attachment to someone, it takes an awful lot to break that bond.

They all loved football and got the connection with Newcastle United and it’s fans and there lies the difference between the top three most revered Newcastle managers of my adult life at the club and the current owner.

Mike Ashley plays on the fans love for the club. Keegan, Robson and Benitez tried their best to build a team FOR the fans. Keegan didn’t need to return from retirement and risk his reputation (the first or the second time) Bobby had achieved everything as manager and at 66 didn’t need the hassle, knocking balls around a golf course and watching the cricket would surely have sufficed. Rafa was the same, he didn’t need to manage a struggling Premier League side haunted by relegation and risk his reputation either.

All three enhanced their reputations in the game as a whole as well as with Newcastle fans and said fans will look back on their time at the club with a mixture of love for the person, acknowledgement for the effort and respect for the reasoning behind their decisions to walk away when two of them had little choice but to do so.

On the other hand, all three of those people were undermined by the ownership of the day, two of them on the watch of the current incumbent and whilst it wouldn’t be a stretch to believe that other than money and power, Mike Ashley has never loved anything in his entire life, he certainly doesn’t love Newcastle United. There also lies the problem in 2021 and also why we have such an unlovable man in the managerial hot seat at present.

It’s strange how the Newcastle United managers most loved by the fans get the worst treatment and respect from the people in charge at the club and yet those that the fans sussed out as being either useless charlatans or downright nasty people, were / are backed by the very same people in charge.

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